In Which New York City Is Also a Character

Anna Shechtman interviews Joana Avillez and Molly Young, the creators of “D C-T!,” a work in the style of William Steig’s children’s book classics.

In Which New York City Is Also a Character

JOANA AVILLEZ AND Molly Young work well with others. Avillez, an illustrator whose drawings mix the canniness of street photography with the charm of a bar napkin scribble, has collaborated on essay collections, cookbooks, and wallpaper. Young — who lives life like a rebus puzzle, making words of things and things of words — has partnered to create callings cards emblazoned with compliments, cheeky mugs, and a “Periodic Table of NYC Trash.”

In their first collaboration together, Avillez and Young have updated William Steig’s children’s book classics CDB! and CDC?. They’ve used his phonetic puzzle language to grasp the character and cadence of life in New York City — or, as they call it, D C-T. Theirs is a shared sensibility — not-suitable-for-children childlike wonder — that is itself a product of their New York City lives.


ANNA SHECHTMAN: How did this collaboration come about?

JOANA AVILLEZ: Well, Molly and I both went to college in Providence, Rhode Island — but I’m not even sure that we met there.

MOLLY YOUNG: We were certainly aware of each other.

JA: We share an ex-boyfriend.

Were you … rivals?

JA: A Betty and Veronica situation. You have words, I have pictures.

MY: And because we shared an ex-boyfriend, let’s say society had organized us as opponents.

So how did your friendship emerge? Or, your collaboration — I shouldn’t presume that you’re friends.

JA: [Laughs.] We are. But this was a while ago. Finally, three years ago, we had a first date, and the idea to do a project together emerged. After that we moved very quickly, finessing a book proposal within months. Someone on Twitter suggested that we dedicate [D C-T!] to the shared ex-boyfriend, and I found that so boring.

Well, it’s not dedicated to him. It’s dedicated to your dads. Why’s that?

MY: Our dads were the ones who introduced us to William Steig. Separately, of course. My dad gave me CDB! when I was a little kid, and I was immediately addicted to its verbal puzzles.

JA: I read every William Steig book with my dad. Rotten Island, Brave Irene, Amos & Boris … The kind of illustration I love most — a funny and deceptively simple drawn line — is utter Steig. Molly and I, we can do together what one person, Steig, did so well alone.

Does D C-T! have a New York City origin story?

JA: Not really. If you go back to the first email about it, Molly was just like, “Hey, I have all of these codes written, and maybe we could make a zine.”

MY: I had an office job then, and when I was bored at work, I would come up with codes and keep them in a Google Doc. Steig invented a whole new puzzle language, and produced CDB! and a sequel called CDC?, and then no one else ran with the puzzle language. It’s almost like someone invented Sudoku and then there were two of them published and that’s it. Or a crossword puzzle. It seemed like a form that someone else should play with.

I love that you call them codes. I wasn’t sure what to call them — “captions” doesn’t do them justice — because there’s such intense symbiosis between word and image. Did the code always come before the image in the creative process?

MY: Whenever I do a collaboration with someone, I seem to black out during the process and then mystically emerge with a creation of some sort. I literally have no memory of what actually happens — who said what, edited what, improved what — when it’s over. I assume Joana and I got along very well because I was in a great mood through the entire lengthy process.

What we have in common is an appetite for specificity. One of us would be walking down the street and see some typical New York scene — a trash can after the rain, stuffed with broken cheapo umbrellas — and immediately convey it to the other person and then devise a narrative around it. It was a very chaotic creative process.

JA: But we’re also very organized. Our brains are now kerned to anticipate what would benefit the other.

MY: Chaos distilled into Google Docs.

There are some marked differences between CDB! and D C-T!. Steig’s book is very obviously a children’s book. I can’t imagine that your book is being marketed that way.

MY: I would say that the book is inappropriate for children, but that they are encouraged to locate it somehow and spend furtive quality time with it. Parents might be uncomfortable showing it to their kids — which is exactly the kind of book that kids tend to like most.

JA: Like many people, the books that I looked at when my parents’ weren’t at home — and not just for nudity — are the ones that I remember best. However, I happen to know a very astute seven-year-old who has solved more of our puzzles than most eligible readers.

Your book is also harder than Steig’s books. You actually include a key in case solvers are stumped. Tell me about that decision.

MY: Actually CDC? had a key.

JA: When we were asking people about whether to include a key, there was a strangely gendered response: a lot of women thought we definitely should, a lot of men said no.

Right, well in my experience, more men than women consider looking up crossword clues cheating. But even competitive solvers will be stumped by some of the book’s “Easter eggs” — surprise puzzles buried inside of the image, whose answers aren’t included in the key.

JA: Totally.

MY: It’s pregnant with Easter eggs. There’s even a crossword puzzle scene, now that you mention it. A puzzle-within-a-puzzle, for the diehard puzzleheads.

Do you imagine that D C-T! will be the first in a series? Can L.A. residents expect N L-A?

JA: If we did a sequel, I’m not sure it would necessarily be another city — à la Miroslav Šašek’s beautiful children’s books This Is Paris, This Is Venice, This Is New York, et cetera. In our case, the city was just the perfect raucous home for the form.

There’s a lot of New York pride in this book, not least because it’s called D C-T! and not A C-T!.

JA: Yeah, at my high school [in Brooklyn] people used to call Manhattan “the city.” Roz Chast’s most recent book, Going Into Town, captures some of that sense of wonder and pride and reverence for the city. If you don’t retain some of that, it’d be impossible to live in this belly of a beast who also has acid reflux.

Did you learn each other’s New Yorks from working together?

MY: We did learn each other’s New Yorks, and there was a lot of overlap.

JA: There was, and I think it’s good that Molly isn’t from New York. She’s from San Francisco — still a city gal. Overall, we wanted the book to work more like The Philharmonic Gets Dressed than a slideshow of tourist attractions.

MY: Yes, Joana and I are both less preoccupied by physical landmarks of New York, and more interested in the mythos of the city, the petty conflicts, subway etiquette, the fact that fabulous freaks still make their home here, the omnipresence of rats, the dynamic of walking behind people who are too slow —

JA: — the microaggressions. The attitude and feeling.

MY: It’s about humans living in proximity and how they cope.

Do you have a favorite page?

MY: I M B-Z. It captures the state of modern woman.


Anna Shechtman is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She writes crossword puzzles for The New Yorker and The New York Times.

LARB Contributor

Anna Shechtman is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. A PhD Candidate in English Literature and Film & Media Studies at Yale University, she also writes crossword puzzles for The New Yorker and The New York Times.


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